William James (left) and Chauncey Wright

Practically Speaking

How pragmatic were the pragmatists?

BY Kim Phillips-Fein

Email this article to a friend

p>The Metaphysical Club:
A Story of Ideas in America

By Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
546 pages, $27

Several years ago, Richard Rorty gave a speech on the origins of the American labor movement. It was, he said, “a blood-drenched history of violent struggle.” Winning the smallest reforms–the eight-hour day, the five-day week–required near-revolutionary commitment from workers who had to be willing to undertake “repeated and deliberate criminal acts.” The speech–called “Labor’s Flag Is Deepest Red”–was striking, but still more so was the fact that Rorty gave it: Here was a leading pragmatist who seemed to believe that simple political victories require an absolute faith, an unwillingness to treat one’s beliefs as though they permit compromise.

The original American pragmatists, who wrote in the era of Homestead and Pullman, would have been surprised to hear it delivered by one of their number. As Louis Menand’s excellent new history of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club, shows, the “fear of violence” spurred the intellectual development of the first pragmatic thinkers. Pragmatism, he suggests, was born in a wave of late-19th century revulsion against political ideology. One of its major inspirations was hatred of the Civil War, when abolitionists “marched the nation toward self-destruction in the name of an abstraction,” and the style of thought gained popularity at the fin-de-siècle in large part because of widespread fear of a new civil war between labor and capital.

Menand hails pragmatism as America’s great philosophical contribution to the Western tradition, its optimistic plasticity and bright-eyed hostility to theory the natural intellectual offspring of a land of prosperity and reform. He admires the pragmatists’ willingness to snap the moorings binding them to the past, and the sense of human possibility that resulted from their jarringly cheerful break with tradition.

Well known for balancing a double career as an English professor at the City University of New York and a New Yorker writer, Menand is also, like the pragmatists, no friend of scholarly jargon, elaborate theory or hyper-specialization, and The Metaphysical Club is clear and elegant in style. But even as Menand celebrates pragmatism’s flexibility, he also suggests the extent to which pragmatism–both at the end of the 19th century and in its reinvigoration today–is the product of a conservative political mood. Shadowing its embrace of openness and experimentation, its constant willingness to re-invent the world and the self, there is a darker aspect to pragmatism, a tinge of anti-radicalism that borders on ideology itself.

The Metaphysical Club (the name was ironic, since all its members abhorred metaphysics) is more than a clever title. There was a real club for a few years in Cambridge in the 1870s, though, like Groucho Marx’s, it was one that none of its members wanted to claim. While it is briefly mentioned in the letters of Charles Peirce, and disparagingly noted in those of Henry James (who was not a member, but whose brother William was), none of its participants say a word about it anywhere. Yet it was the meeting place for the best-known pragmatic thinkers–William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Peirce–as well as influential hangers-on like depressive alcoholic Chauncey Wright, whose nihilistic mutterings seem to have influenced all of the greats.

The absence of the Metaphysical Club from the memoirs of its members reflects the discomfort all of them felt for the label of pragmatism. James coined the term to describe Peirce’s philosophy, but he would have preferred to describe his own thought as “humanism.” John Dewey–who was a bit too young to be a member of the original Club–liked “instrumentalism” instead, while Holmes pronounced pragmatism an “amusing humbug.” Even Peirce, for whose benefit it was invented, had little use for the word until it was established enough to have some PR value. Then, he changed it to an infelicitous neologism–“pragmaticism”–to distinguish his work from that of Dewey and James.

It seems fitting that the leading pragmatic thinkers should have been unwilling to identify themselves as such. Doubt, after all, was the hallmark of their philosophy. Theirs was a school of opposition to schools. As James wrote, they had in common “a method only”: to oppose “rationalism” and “intellectualism,” and to treat anything that reached for the grandiosity of philosophy with a bemusement occasionally bordering on scorn. They laid their faith in rational empiricism and methodical effort–trying things to see what worked, what brought order to a chaotic society or lessened the pain of human existence–instead of formal theory or abstractions about truth and virtue.

In the context of the late 19th century, this meant breaking with the pompous creeds of Social Darwinism and legal formalism, making possible the reforms of the Progressive era. As James put it, the pragmatists sought “the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality and the pretense of finality in truth.”

Yet at the same time, the pragmatic thinkers were tentative about everything they deemed most important. On the one hand, they celebrated the open-endedness of the world, claiming vast reforming powers for will, idealism and reason. Yet there was something diminutive about their treatment of ideas, their relish at puncturing any “fighting faith.” They were similarly ambiguous about ends and outcomes. Ideas were supposed to be justified by the ends that they made possible–as James put it, “truth happens to an idea”–but how was one to recognize what the worthy end might be?

What makes Menand’s interpretation of the pragmatists unique is his suggestion that this paralyzing uncertainty was precisely what they were hoping to achieve. Other scholars of pragmatism have portrayed the philosophy as the solution to the fin-de-siècle crisis of authority in American life–the decline of small-town communities, the decreasing prestige of the clergy, the unfamiliar dilemmas of the modern world. Pragmatism freed people at the turn of the century from allegiance to old, outmoded schemas–like a metaphysical belief in the infallibility of laissez-faire–opening the way for government action and reform.

The idiosyncratic lives of the pragmatists certainly suggest that their embrace of indecision was more than a philosophical creed. William James, for example, was famously incapable of making up his mind. It took him years to decide to marry his sweetheart. When trying to determine whether to retire from teaching at Harvard in 1905, his diary would one day read “Resign!” and the next, “Don’t resign!” and the third, “Resign?” (He wound up staying one more year.) Charles Peirce’s whole life–punctuated by sexual scandal and bouts of unemployment, and ending in an obscure, impoverished old age–was one long law of errors. The personal insecurity and anxiety of the pragmatists made them curiously suitable advocates for a philosophy that held self-doubt as its highest virtue.

But Menand goes further. He suggests that–in addition to teaching that “people are masters of their own destinies,” an appropriate philosophy for a society in flux–pragmatism is a political position, a revolt not simply against formalism but against political ideology. The pragmatist philosophers rejected abstraction, he suggests, because they feared that excessive certainty would lead to violence. If people were willing to die for their ideas, they would be willing to kill others for them as well. This, Menand argues, was the lesson that they learned in the Civil War: The passion of the abolitionists–their “infatuation with an idea”–had led to mass death. In the late 19th century, it seemed that the revolt against capitalism and the struggles of workers threatened to do the same: “In a time when the chance of another civil war did not seem remote, a philosophy that argued against the idolatry of ideas was possibly the only philosophy on which a progressive politics could have been successfully mounted.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes is Menand’s best example of the relationship between pragmatism and political disillusionment. When Holmes was a college student, he was a fervent believer in anti-slavery. His father, the doctor-poet, was active in Boston’s abolitionist circles, and when the war came, Holmes left Harvard before the semester was finished, rushing off to join the Army so quickly that he almost missed getting his degree. He was, Menand says, a “student radical.” But Holmes quickly became horrified with his war. According to Menand, he systematically destroyed every letter he wrote that mentioned his abolitionist sympathies or his belief in the justice of the cause. Invited to fight with the Massachusetts 54th, the all-black regiment, Holmes refused. Fredericksburg, he wrote, was “an infamous butchery in a ridiculous attempt.” He left the war before it was won.

But he never forgot it. Every year for the rest of his life, Holmes drank a glass of wine on the anniversary of Antietam (where he was shot and briefly left for dead behind enemy lines). When he died, two Civil War uniforms were found in his closet, bearing a note saying that the blood upon them was his. Holmes’ pragmatism, Menand suggests, his reluctance to believe in anything too fervently, was the lesson he had learned in the war: that “certitude leads to violence.”

In later life, Holmes would write, “Some kind of despotism is at the bottom of seeking for change. … I would fight for some things–but instead of saying that they ought to be I merely say that they are part of the world I like–or should like.”

For Holmes, disdain for theory was intertwined with aversion to political conviction. No faith should be too deeply or confidently held; no position elevated to mandate action. Yet even as Menand shows the pragmatic turn against ideology, he suggests that their worldview was not only one of ironic flexibility, but also of political disappointment. The great jurist’s agnosticism was colored by a sense of disengagement and even emptiness. “This is not the kind of world I want to bring anyone else into,” he wrote, and had no children. In 1932, a few years before his death, Holmes broke into tears reading Marion Frankfurter (Felix’s wife) a poem about the Civil War. After Holmes’ death, Lewis Einstein said that Holmes had told him, “After the Civil War, the world never seemed quite right again.”

Unlike many other studies of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club makes it clear how much it was often bound up with hostility toward broader kinds of political idealism. The rejection of the faiths of the Civil War era, after all, came at a time when the federal government was denying any responsibility for the slaves that the war had set free. In an exchange with Dewey, Jane Addams declared the war futile, because “we freed the slaves by war & now had to free them all over again individually, & pay the costs of the war & reckon with the added bitterness of the Southerners alike.”

But saying this in the 1890s, while Jim Crow was on the rise, was not so much an argument against ideological warfare as it was one in defense of the reigning ideology–doing nothing to protect the rights of African-Americans. Similarly, the fears of the pragmatists that the passionate faiths of socialists and anarchists might lead to violence seems to overlook the fact that the deeply entrenched desire of employers in the late 19th century to keep things as they were resulted in repression, arrests of striking workers and the calling out of the state militias.

On a deeper level, The Metaphysical Club shows the political conditions that underpin one of the recurrent themes of American intellectual life: the periodic rejection of ideology. Americans are supposed to be quintessentially pragmatic people. But in reality, the notion that ideas are dangerous and that we have reached the end of ideology always seems to surge to the foreground when conservatism is on the rise. In Menand’s interpretation, pragmatism was forged against the backdrop of the decline of the egalitarian dreams of the Reconstruction era.

The most famous renunciations of all political faith came at the height of McCarthyism, when Judith Shklar proclaimed “the end of radicalism” while Daniel Bell wrote, “ideology … has come to a dead end.” Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that “politics is now boring,” famously quoting a Swedish journalist to the effect that “the only issues are whether the metal workers should get a nickel more an hour, the price of milk should be raised, or old-age pensions extended.” Today, the prominence of pragmatists like Rorty has its roots in the end of Communism and the political defeats of the ’60s. In moments of political loss, all radical visions start to appear utopian and chiliastic, easy to denounce as destructive nihilism.

Yet at the same time, The Metaphysical Club suggests that this is only temporary. As new political movements emerge–combining, as they always do, immediate and practical reforms with a broader vision of transformation–the old ambivalence about commitment falls away. Even the pragmatists knew that it sometimes mattered most to know which side you were on. During the Pullman Strike of 1894, John Dewey–then a young philosopher at the University of Chicago–met one of the strikers on a train. “I only talked with him 10 or 15 minutes, but when I got through my nerves were more thrilled than they had been for years; I felt as if I had better resign my job teaching and follow him round till I got into him. One lost all sense of the right or wrong of things in admiration of his almost fanatic sincerity and earnestness, & in admiration of the magnificent combination that was going on.”

Dewey proclaimed himself “a good deal of an anarchist,” and commented at the end of the strike, “I think the few thousand train cars burned up a pretty cheap price to pay–it was the stimulus necessary to direct attention, & it might easily have taken more to get the social organism thinking.” Forty years later, during the New Deal, Dewey would use the lessons that he’d learned during Pullman to criticize businessmen who organized Liberty Leagues–for whom old-age pensions and the question of whether to pay a nickel more an hour were issues of great ideological and political significance. “Democracy,” he wrote then, “is a fighting faith.”

What might this erstwhile anarchist have made of Seattle and Genoa? To tweak Russell Jacoby, perhaps it is time to declare an end to the end of ideology once more.


Support Independent Journalism

In These Times has been selected to participate in NewsMatch 2018—the largest grassroots fundraising campaign for nonprofit news organizations.

For a limited time, when you make a tax-deductible donation to support our reporting, it will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the NewsMatch fund, doubling your impact.

Kim Phillips-Fein is a writer in New York City and a contributing editor to In These Times. She is working on a book about the business backlash against the New Deal.

View Comments